We catch up with the RuPaul’s Drag Race alum ahead of her debut solo show – THE SMALLS WORLD
“I’m definitely living my best life with my drag right now,” says drag icon Naomi Smalls over Zoom, calling in from LA at 1am. “I know it’s a corny quote but I really do feel like this is what I was born to do. I look at the stage like my life.”
While you’ve been spending lockdown baking banana bread, playing Animal Crossing, or experimenting with your hair and make-up, Smalls has been busy working on her newly teased solo show, THE SMALLS WORLD. Written, directed, and produced by Smalls, the digital show is a visual expression of her life, her most personal project to date.
“My visual inspirations come from all sorts of places, from Tumblr to small town vintage shops, high-fashion editorials to performance art pieces,” she says. “But, at the core of this show, it’s about going back to where I came from. It’s about relationships, family, loss and healing, told through the language I best know how to communicate: drag.”
“At the core of this show, it’s about going back to where I came from. It’s about relationships, family, loss and healing, told through the language I best know how to communicate: drag” – Naomi Smalls
THE SMALLS WORLD is an evolution that follows on from SMALLS WORLD, a YouTube series released in 2018. The new project will feature fashion (duh!), looks for days, unforgettable lip sync performances, and more personal anecdotes from her mother on family life shaped Smalls
It’s the next step on the path to stardom, for a queen who has been stepping on our necks since she sashayed into the RuPaul’s Drag Race werkroom for the first time in 2016. After all, you can’t spell legendary without ‘leg’ and she’s got plenty. “I remember my dad would say that when you find something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life,” Smalls muses. “Yes, I am a drag queen, but on top of that I’m a producer, art director, and I get to encompass everything with my drag.”
Here, we speak to Naomi about THE SMALLS WORLD, her experiences with race as a queen of colour, and why fashion needs to be more diverse.
What made you want to go ahead with THE SMALLS WORLD now?
Naomi Smalls: Before COVID-19 and the pandemic, I was doing a stage shows five nights a week; I’m such a sucker for the stage and sucker for performance, it’s where I really feel like I get to shine.
I’ve been doing this, being part of someone’s production, for five years now after my time on reality television. It’s always been a desire of mine to do it myself and to be able to put my own production into it and tackle my own creative vision. This is the time. I already had it up my sleeve and I’m just super excited for everyone to see THE SMALLS WORLD now.
What was the inspiration behind the show?
Naomi Smalls: I get a lot of my inspiration from the music I perform and the music I listen to. I’m such a visual person on top of that, I like to transport people into a world that I create in my head because what you see in your head is something so unique to you and what I see in my head is something that is so unique to me.
It’s such a beautiful thing when you can present that to an audience and welcome people into your world. I have a tonne of different visual references. I have a tonne of different audio references, but it always stems from wanting to paint that picture and wanting to transport and escape into something completely Naomi.
Why should people come to see THE SMALLS WORLD?
Naomi Smalls: If it’s going to have Naomi Smalls’ name attached to it, it’s going to be gorgeous, just know that. It’s going to be cinematic and it’s a medium that you’ve never seen Naomi Smalls in. It’s something I’m so, so, so proud of, not that I’m not proud of anything I’ve done in the past, but it’s something that 100 per cent me and you can’t beat that. Having the confidence of knowing that I did this and came up with this is a super huge accomplishment. It’s going to be an amazing show and I don’t want to give too much away because it’s so new and fresh but you’ll be seeing a whole bunch of content coming out. I haven’t seen anyone tackle drag like this, so stay tuned.
What is the importance of drag shows and performances during and after COVID-19?
Naomi Smalls: Seeing a performance and being on the stage has always been such an escape. It’s something that I’ve been doing for so long, even when I was a child on stage. Any chance that I get to escape reality, because sometimes it’s not that great, is always an invitation I’m willing to accept. Especially during these times, we’re looking for something positive and we’re looking for something to gravitate to that has a nice message behind it – because the world isn’t really like that at the moment.
I’m very aware that a lot of my fans are younger and when I was younger, I wasn’t so confident and proactive about being able to find the positive in everything. It’s really cool to be a representative for kids out there who need that escapism – being somebody living their best life is an amazing inspiration for my fanbase and I’m really happy to be that for them.
Growing up, do you remember when you first become aware of your identity?
Naomi Smalls: In sixth grade, I remember there was this boy who was older than me and he was talking to a teaching assistant in PE – which I failed three times, those ugly gym shorts… I could hear them talking about me and I didn’t know what they were saying, but he yelled my name so I turned around with my hands on my hips and I pivoted out. He was like, ‘see, that’s not normal’ and I just remember thinking: ‘Oh shit there must be something different about me’.
I just remember my reaction to whatever they were talking about was so organic and I feel like ever since then I’ve just been aware that I was different. But, I never saw it as a crutch or something to be ashamed of because I actually really hated that guy, so I was just happy I was nothing like him.
When did you know that you wanted to do drag?
Naomi Smalls: It’s so funny, I remember the reality competition shows with drag queens and seeing drag on television and I remember my sister asking me ’you’d never want to do this right?’ and me being like ’absolutely not!’ and actually believing it at that time.
Once I turned 18 and I got to actually go to drag shows, I would place myself in those queen’s heels on stage and think ‘I want to do that and be at that level or better’. Around 18 is when I really found the spark for seeing myself on stage as a drag queen.
“Being Black is something you live with and experience, you don’t just hang it up at the end of the day. You don’t pour milk into it and it goes away. You live your life exactly how the world perceives you” – Naomi Smalls
When you first appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race, you spoke about some of the difficulties of growing up as a mixed race person. Can you tell us more about that?
Naomi Smalls: For some reason when you’re mixed, people love to equate your level of Blackness or whiteness. It’s really unfortunate because someone can look at my background with two white parents, but I grew up in a very multicultural family with other Black siblings, Latino siblings, Iranian siblings etc. I really grew up understanding that people are people, I was never going to judge someone based on how they looked because nobody looks like us and that’s what makes us special – we’re all different.
Just because I didn’t grow up with the same experiences as someone, it doesn’t mean that I don’t have the same struggle. Being Black is something you live with and experience, you don’t just hang it up at the end of the day. You don’t pour milk into it and it goes away. You live your life exactly how the world perceives you. I’m so proud to be a Black person, I’m so proud to be mixed. I’m so proud to have the background that I have because I feel like I’ve really got a great understanding of judging people based on their actions instead of their appearance.
The Drag Race fandom has been called out for different treatment of Black queens and queens of colour versus white queens. Is that something you’ve experienced?
Naomi Smalls: It’s something that I have a big issue with. It’s not necessarily all about race, but I’ve always had an issue with comparing myself to others and that goes with skills and looks and praise from higher-ups, the judges and whatnot.
Something I’ve always tried to keep in the back of my brain is nobody can do you like you do you, so just really worry about yourself. It’s definitely right to stand up for yourself if you think there’s any negativity or wrongdoing but I’m always going to be worried about how I treat others. That’s how I sleep at night and how I feel like conscious, by knowing I’m not a malicious person. I know that my actions aren’t sometimes the best but I think that’s very human at the same time.
Have you felt pressured to speak out about race since the increased conversations around the Black Lives Matter movement?
Naomi Smalls: I don’t necessarily feel the pressure to speak about anything. That’s something I’ve always tried to do whenever I’m going to be public about something. I never want it to be out of pressure because I feel like that creates a lot of inauthenticity. I do believe in educating those around me and using my platform for the better good.
I’ve always had this idea that if you are interested in me, you don’t have these spots of negativity but I think that was a very foolish mindset to have because it’s just not how the world works. But, I don’t feel any pressure, I almost feel more of an honour to be able to talk about it because I have had these experiences and I can let these people know that what they’re thinking is not always what is right. I think you also have to be open to other people’s experiences because something Billy Bob went through is maybe something I can’t relate to, but that doesn’t necessarily discredit it. It’s just something I don’t have in my back pocket.
“I’m always going to be worried about how I treat others. That’s how I sleep at night and how I feel like conscious, by knowing I’m not a malicious person. I know that my actions aren’t sometimes the best but I think that’s very human at the same time” – Naomi Smalls
As a huge fashion fanatic, how does it feel to be so interested in an industry that doesn’t always represent you as a person of colour?
Naomi Smalls: It’s a double-edged sword to love something that doesn’t necessarily always have your best interests at heart or even consider you a factor. Someone I have always gravitated towards – I mean it’s clear in my name – is Naomi Campbell, the baddest bitch. Even though the world she literally runs was not made for her, it’s something that she loves and is going to educate people on why they shouldn’t be thinking the way that they think and should embrace not just her but people who are similar to her, or people who are just different period.
Fashion is not made for one person, that’s never been the case for fashion. If that was the case it would be a very, very, very boring world without diversity and without any queer people in it.
Moving forward, how do you think diversity can be improved for the better in all creative industries?
Naomi Smalls: Just by speaking out more and more about it. It does actually help and lets people get different insights and relate. When Adut (Akech) blasted that magazine for using a picture of a different model. There’s no excuse and if it was somebody like Gemma Ward, it would never happen. I’m so happy people are constantly speaking out about these mistakes and more because that’s the only way these mistakes don’t go unnoticed.